For a long time now, like most of us, I’ve been pretty identified with
my hair. I remember "hair dresser trauma"-when I was a little girl never being
able to say out loud to the woman “Hey lady, quit wrecking my hair”. I was
a good girl. I had never been spanked or sent to my room. I figured a haircut
was a punishment for all the naughty things I thought about and didn’t do, or
did do and got away with. Like playing doctors with Philip Cresenzi, who
cheated at Fish, said bad words at Little League and played with matches
up in the big tree where he and I had built our fort. As soon as the little black
comb and those small stainless steel scissors came out of the drawer,
I would begin to weep.
I had straight hair. I wanted dark curly hair. Permanents didn’t work on my hair.
Bobby pins fell out. Hair bands made me claustrophobic. By the time the late
sixties came along I had out grown all the pixie cuts, bobs and mop tops in
favor of growing long blonde hair and bangs that hung defiantly
in my face and seemed to be particularly annoying to nuns and attractive to
boys, both of which I figured had to be good.
I also had the self appointed job of protecting my little sister from infinite
agony of bad hair cuts. Being bi-racial, she had beautiful black soft ringlets
like Nurse Lovely. I called them "boinga boingas". I regularly shaped her boingas
into a perfect “fro” (short for Afro) She would look up at me with her big brown
eyes wondering how she could get straight blonde hair like mine, planting seeds for the illicit use in her
teen years of spray- on bleach concoctions which guaranteed the "california girl" look,
turning her African hair orange. Otherness is always so exotic.
I have journeyed this life as a blonde; suffering through “dumb blonde jokes, receiving preferential treatment with
shades of objectification, and enduring many worrisome moments in swarthier cultures. Once in the Kasbah in Fez,
Morocco, a very tall man with rounds of ammunition across his chest and a very large sword demanded to buy me
from my boyfriend in exchange for a large number of camels. It had something to do with my hair.
Apparently the harem was short on blondes. My old college sweetheart would often say, “Underneath that ditzy
blonde exterior, is a brilliant woman”. Somehow my hair had an inverse relationship with my IQ.
Throughout my life, often in the aftermath of one of our many mother/daughter arguments, my mother would look
at me, soften her gaze and in a conciliatory offering say to me with a bit of a twinkle and her English accent,
“Where did you get that beautiful hair?” or “You’ve got good hair and you didn’t get it from me!” Short on apologies
but lavish with praise, this comment became a mantra over the years, forming a neural superhighway in my mothers
brain, a main route she could always to come back to, retrievable now even in her dementia.
More recently, I finally succumbed and uploaded a photo taken last spring on my match.com profile. I had been on
match.com for four years with the same profile but no photograph. Perhaps it was an expression of my ambivalence
about dating, or concerns for privacy but being on an internet dating service with no photograph almost guarantees
that no one will read your profile, no matter how intriguing. Men are very visual creatures. I was flying stealth.
It was fine with me. Then my dear friend, Kathy Staat took a fun shot of me outside my office for my mother and
I thought “What the hell!” I posted the picture. It’s the same picture I am using on this blog. Suddenly at the tender
age of 51 in my black leather jacket, blonde hair and Vera Wong glasses, I began to receive more attention than I
could ever want or manage from men all ages, races and political persuasions. My email was flooded with winks
and blinks and messages. A frequently asked question: Was I Goldie Hawn? My most frequent answer: Huh?
I realized then that I had not just uploaded a photograph on a “good hair day”. I had uploaded a cultural icon,
an archetype. It’s all about the hair.
Chemo is not kind to hair. Chemo is designed to destroy rapidly dividing cells. That includes cancer cells, hair, nails
and cells that live in the mouth and GI tract areas. Chemo doesn’t know how to kill the cancer and keep the hair.
I knew I would loose my hair and I was really ok with it. I wanted to have fun and be creative. I wanted to be proactive.
I had a plan. There would be a countdown of weeks before it started to fall in great gobs down the shower or meet
me like a small mammal on my pillow in the morning. In the meantime I was determined to have an adventure,
to meet it on my own terms.
DeeDee, my seventeen year old grand daughter, is very good with the little steel scissors. Shortly before my first
chemo session I asked her if she would give me a series of successively shorter hair cuts culminating with the
Buddhist nun shaved head look. I thought it would be a sweet way for us to connect, to value DeeDee for her own
unique way of supporting me through the journey with cancer. I also thought I could experiment with different wild
looks with a kind of abandon reserved only for teenagers or those who know they are about to loose all their hair
anyway. DeeDee had complete permission to do whatever she wanted to her Mima’s hair. She could turn me into an
aging punk waif with a Mohawk, dye it iridescent blue, and spike it with waxy gels or create something more elegant
and subdued. I was up for the wild.
My first doo was a sexy bob, with long front pieces and as DeeDee would say "side swept bangs". The second cut won the Annie Lennox
look alike contest or at least in our imaginations. Each time DeeDee came over with her sister, Wynne, and we had
our own little party on the deck. My hair went into a bucket. The sound of DeeDee’s razor and little steel scissors
cut through the hot Texas summer afternoon. The cicadas sang in the background. I didn’t cry like I might have when
I was little. It was fun. We were beating the ravages of chemo, one hair cut at a time.
The next cut was trickier. I asked my friend, Ian Forslund, if he would help me. Ian is a very talented clinical
social worker in one of my study groups. He is also a Buddhist practitioner and a ten year cancer survivor. He shaves
his head. I asked him if he would shave mine. He said he would be honored. I was very touched. I wanted to
create a ritual around it. Ian had some times available and then was going out of town. Word on the street is that
your hair starts coming out about the tenth day after the second chemo session. And that it happens fast,
three days or so. We still had time… or so I thought.
It was a Monday morning in late July. In the quiet intimacy of a morning shower, running shampoo through my
new Annie Lennox doo, my hair began to fall down my shoulders onto my body and into the eddying swirl of the
drain beneath my feet. Even though I knew this moment would come, I was taken by complete surprise when it did.
Did I think somehow I could beat it with my magical powers...that it wouldn’t happen to me? Had I really been
in denial all along? No, it’s not that. It’s just that when your hair falls out so radically nothing in your experience
prepares you for it. The instinctive part of your brain says “something is terribly wrong!” recoiling even though you
knew this was coming. The visceral response of the body/mind over rides vanity. It’s a moment when you know that
you are battling cancer with rugged medicine, and that Life is way beyond your control. It’s a moment when you talk
to your God.
Over the next two days massive amounts of hair fell into my hands. By Wednesday I was afraid to shower at the risk
of loosing all that might be left. My head hurt as though an invisible person were standing behind me pulling my hair.
I was desperate. Ian and DeeDee were out of town. My son, Eliot, called from Costa Rica and urged me to get his
dad to use his clippers that night. I couldn’t wait. I called Cristina Crawford, my hairdresser and friend of many years.
She knew. She could see me at 4. I drove across town to the upscale salon in North Austin. She met me with love
and open arms.With tears in her eyes, she reminded me of all the great haircuts we could do when my hair grew back.
I asked her if she had ever done this before, shave a woman’s head to deal with the impact of chemo:
she said no. I called her a chemo virgin. She said I would always be her first time. We laughed.
She brought me over to the sink, placing my head in the bowl, rubbing aroma therapy oils into my scalp, then
tenderly and sensually washing my hair. It mostly all fell into her hands with the force of the warm water coming from
the spray hose. She remained calm, supportive and loving giving no clue that the experience might have been difficult
for her. When she finished there were little tufts left here and there. I sat up. Together we walked to her station. Other
women in the salon were trying to look away, perhaps because they were trying to overcome the tendency to stare, or
the unsettling fear that “there but for the grace of God go I” or perhaps because the woman in the very back of the
salon looked like a big plucked scary turkey.
Cristina buzzed what was left down to the bare bones. It was a harder adjustment than I had anticipated.
I wondered how I would muster the courage to walk from the back of the salon, through the men’s section, paying
up front in the trendy boutique at the cash register and then walk across the parking lot to my car. It had not
occurred to me to bring a hat, a scarf or one of the two hand-me-down wigs in my closet at home. It had not
occurred to me that I might need some time to adjust to my new Buddhist nun look. It had not occurred to me that
I would feel so exposed.
Cristina sensed my discomfort and went to the front to find me something to cover my head. She looked high
and low for a scarf but there was not one to be found. She returned with a pink Izod sun hat which was
extremely geeky and expensive. I decided I would just go bald. She looked further. She found some headbands
that were wrapped with silk scarves. I couldn’t quite imagine putting a headband on my bald head. It reminded me
of those little headbands Hispanic mothers put on their girl babies for a baptism or maybe for the funny looking ones,
so you now it’s a girl. I declined. I was just going to brave it. I knew I was a girl.
Then Cristina remembered that her son’s baseball cap was in the trunk of her car. She wanted me to have it.
That sounded great to me, a definite upgrade. I was starting to feel like a fussy bald Goldilocks. I could manage a
baseball cap. I was thinking it might even be a team I like. The Yankees...The Red Sox...The Oakland “A’s”...Cristina
returned and put the black baseball cap on my head. In beautiful white embroidery it read
“Jack Daniels, Old No.7 Brand, Charcoal Mellowed Drop by Drop, Old Time Tennessee Whiskey, since 1866”.
As Goldilocks would say, “It was just right”. I looked like a bald biker chic. I was ready to hit the streets. There was
something so deliciously absurd about it all, that all I could do was giggle.
Giggling goes along way to soften the edges. In the morning of the next day, I went walking along the town lake trail
with two girlfriends, my Jack Daniels hat and my new bald head. Peggy Kelesy took the pictures while Vicki Toten
kissed my newly hatched head. Now my mother tells me I have a beautiful head and I didn’t get it from her. But I just
might have gotten the capacity to laugh.from my mother. To be able to laugh in even the hardest of times.
That is a true gift! Thanks Mom, not so much for the hair but for the laughter.